It took only a matter of hours after taking the PSAT in high school before Arthur the aardvark, clutching a disposable camera in his fist, appeared on Twitter. The caption: “When Juan Ribero refuses to teach you how to use your Kodak #psat.” I don’t at all remember what this meant or what section of the test it was referring to. But in 2016, teachers told students to swear not to discuss any part of the test on social media. In flagrant opposition, we managed to rapidly Tweet #psat over 100,000 times. What surfaced was a general acknowledgment of the absurdity of standardized testing. Long live the meme.
The word ‘meme’ comes from the Greek word mim?ma: meaning ‘that which is imitated.’ Internet culture is in many ways defined by imitation. We take in vast arrays of ideas and images and work them into our curated personas. Imitation is also how we communicate by means of shared belief and culture. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins introduced ‘meme’ to the world in his 1976 work “The Selfish Gene” as a unit of replicable cultural information.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Dawkins explained how cultural ideas can become selected because of their relative transmissibility. Relatable truths, like a catchy tune, are “more likely to get propagated from brain to brain than a boring tune” and, therefore, “memes may be subject to some kind of Darwinian selection in their propagation through the ‘memeisphere,’” meaning the areas of the internet where memes are made and disseminated. The most viral memes usually express the most salient truths.
The memeisphere, despite being an obviously hilarious word (thank you, Dawkins), can be thought of as a repository for the intimate nuances of Millenial and Gen Z culture, and a library for the kind of communication we know best. Exploring memes is the most productive way to understand what the young care about, held back only by the fact that once you embark, you’ve already become a meme. Nonetheless, it seems only fitting to close out the Fox Box’s semester discussion of Gen Z by looking at our most ubiquitous language.
Memes, as we know them in the form of layered images and text, are used on the internet as the visual language of a participatory media culture where individuals seeking to relate directly or discursively to a conversation, political or otherwise, innovate on comedic devices and visual images to convey obvious, subtle or even complex social meanings. Memes provide a way for our generation to find consensus and comedy in virtually anything and rely on structure, just as language does.
Consider the following format: boyfriend and girlfriend are walking hand-in-hand down the street; the boy is looking back lustily at another girl on that street; the girlfriend is looking at the boy looking at the other girl; the girlfriend is visibly distressed. Each party can represent whomever the meme artist decides, and the single image can come to represent an infinite combination of relatable scenarios. This is some A-1 semantic sophistication if you ask me.
A common meme strand of the past year has been the ‘memes then/now’ format showing, for instance, an image from 2012 of a cat massaging another cat next to a 2018 deep-fried image of Donald Trump blowing on a water bottle because its “too hOt.” What I find interesting about these memes is that they acknowledge the progression and disintegration of memes as more people adopt, adapt, and contribute to the medium. Memes used to be purely sensational, like cats doing human-like things, or relatable, like “when you stub your toe blah blah.” Now, with the advent of the anti-meme, the brilliance of a meme may lie in its deliberate lack of meaning, its nuanced or contextual meaning, or its kernel of truth deeply hidden within an inside joke. Consider the following format: stock photo of man in a white T-shirt, caption, “when you exist.” Existence is pretty relatable. Brilliant.
Nonetheless, the best, most influential memes are not only funny, but also true. This is why the “OK Boomer” meme hit the internet like wildfire: besides being hilarious in its many adaptations, it unearthed a very real frustration that the young feel (and have always felt through history) toward the old. The funniest part, I think, is how awfully boomers took the joke, some calling it the “n-word of ageism.” What critics of this meme failed to understand was the fundamental rule of the memeisphere: once you take a meme seriously, you become the meme. Memes are deliberately not to be taken seriously. The “OK Boomer” meme helps classify memes as the language of the young who are in constant search for comedic relief in the face of absurdly daunting facts of life, like depression, anxiety and the state of the world—all of which are common contenders for meme content. The meme, in many ways, is our generation’s most productive and common kind of communication and catharsis.
Memes are important and valuable to our culture for the same reason that comedians are. Some young people even make a living off creating meme accounts on social media platforms. Comedy has deep roots in Western culture, with Aristotle arguing that comedy imitates “the actions of men worse than ourselves.” Memes often take on this form as a way of pointing out hypocrisy in our leaders. However, the butt of the joke is often ourselves, or what we don’t like about ourselves. This process of coping with the gross underbelly of life by laughing at it is an incredibly healthy form of coping. Some researchers think that laughing frequently can extend your lifespan. But I believe that the pervasiveness of meme culture may have a more cynical side for us: apathy.
Memes touch everything, and comment on virtually every vicissitude of the human experience. They help us see that the world, as messed up and nonsensical as it is, is actually quite hilarious. But while allowing us to draw closer to shared truths through satire, memes simultaneously create an aloof distance from it, gradually diluting our emotional responses to issues that should be taken seriously. Simply put, if everything is a joke to us, how are we supposed to take the necessary collective action to right some of the wrongs of past generations?